J.K Gibson-Graham is the pen name of two women, the late Julie Gibson and Katherine Graham, who have conducted research and written together for the better part of two decades. Rooted in political economies, with a feminist, poststructuralist approach, they are most famous for their project to “produce a language” of the diverse economies that exist within, and despite, capitalism. They have combined a Marxist framing--with a specific focus on collective production and control over surplus--with a poststructuralist constructive sensibility--focused on non-essentializing theory. Within this space they have: created a critique of the hegemony of capitalism, developed the “community economic” and “diverse economies” frameworks, and used action research to identify and closely examine the myriad ways in which non-capitalist activities exist all around us.
As an overall note, Gibson-Graham have critiqued the act of creating economic or political theories as wrapped up in patriarchy. This may be a relevant lens to understand why many feminists--especially those writing more recently, who have been influenced by poststructuralism-- might be wary of producing a very specific “next system.”
According to Gibson-Graham (in their book The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy), political change is not produced by rational argument but by changing the “emotional, pre-reflective roots of our thinking.” We must seek out change by altering “whatever enables us to act prior to reflection, the habitual, the embodied knowledge, the ways of being in the world that we almost never think about.”
Working on the ground, “in their own backyards,” Gibson-Graham have used their personal situatedness, as feminists, researchers, and proponents of system change, to work, through action research, to encourage and create new community economies (or new ways of finding and encouraging non-capitalistic economic practices in local communities).
On their approach to action research (embedded within which is a critique of much critical theory in political economy), they write:
Wary of producing a private language of diverse economies (which seemed a project of childhood or even of madness), we felt from the outset the need to enter into conversations with people who were willing to entertain the idea of a different economy...In our research interactions, we hoped to speak and hear richer, more vibrant economic dialects, to explore and develop our rudimentary language of economic difference, to construct alternative economic representations, to cultivate subjects for a community economy, and ultimately perhaps to build a linguistic and practical community around new economic projects and possibilities.
While they prickle at the idea of theorizing a very specific “next system” with a “private language,” they do see themselves as working to construct, encourage and cultivate subjects for a “next system.” One in which, they hope, “the viability of non-capitalist activities in which social surplus is communally produced and distributed on the basis of ethical principles to collectively decided upon ends,” will be central.
Influenced by Bruno Latour and other constructivsts, they urge an approach to research that focuses on “thick descriptions and weak theory.” Instead of creating a model and viewing the world through it, their political, feminist project has been about the situatedness of each encounter and activity and ways in which, through a process of non-essentializing, we will see that people, things (and in their more recent work, plants and animals) are a part of “a landscape of radical heterogeneity. This landscape according to them is “populated by an array of capitalist and noncapitalist enterprises; market, alternative market and nonmarket transactions; paid, unpaid and alternatively compensated labor; and various forms of finance and property—a diverse economy in place.”
In this landscape they find “glimmers of the future, existing economic forms and practices that can be enrolled in constructing a new economy here and now.”
Thus, their “new system” would be comprised of what Erik Olin Wright and others have called “already existing utopias,” and their specific feminist approach would look to the work that women are already doing. If we can destabilize “capitolocentrism”--a term they coined to represent the hegemonic idea that all economic activity is represented in terms of capitalism--they argue, we can create a new “feminist political imaginary.” To do this, in all economic activities we would need to “promote the valuing and strengthening of traditionally coded ‘feminine’ qualities such as nurture, cooperation, sharing, giving, concern for the other, attentiveness to nature, and so on…”
Through countless articles, books, and talks, J.K. Gibson-Graham have outlined these, and more, theories and findings about diverse economies. Speaking about their approach as specifically feminist, unlike other political economist or radical theorists, they write:
we have become unable to wait for an effective politics to be convened on some future terrain. The form of politics we are pursuing is not transmitted via a mass organization, but through a language and a set of practices. A language can become universal without being universalist. It can share the space of power with other languages, without having to eradicate or “overthrow” them.
In a recent article, “a Feminist Project of Belonging for the Anthropocene,” they lay out “key sites of ethical negotiation” that gets close to a basis for a “next system” or models paper/framework:
We have redefined economy as ecology from the standpoint of actors constituting a community and producing livelihoods together, and ecology as the interactions of different diverse community economies. We arrive, then, at the ethical questions that lie at the heart of our economic and ecological relations: “How do we live together with human and non-human others?” Here we might turn to the work of identifying key sites of ethical negotiation—what we have elsewhere called the ethical coordinates of community economies (Gibson-Graham 2006, Ch. 4; Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2010). Building on and adding to these, we suggest that an economic ethics for the Anthropocene calls us to become practiced in negotiating:
- PARTICIPATION: Who is the “we” that participates in the constitution of livelihoods and community economies?
- NECESSITY OR SUFFICIENCY: What do “we” need for survival? What constitutes “enough”? This includes asking about what is necessary for the dignified survival of all living beings and communities with whom we are interdependent, and about how we might consume in ways such that one species’ or community’s consumption does not compromise the survival chances of others.
- SURPLUS: How do “we” produce, appropriate, distribute and mobilize surplus? Our new accounting must include surplus that is generated not just by human labor, but by the work of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and dynamic energetic systems.
- COMMONS: How do “we” make and share a commons, the material commonwealth of our community economies, with this new, more-than-human “we” in mind? Can we, for example, begin to see the chickens, bees and fruit trees of a cooperative farm not as part of that farm’s commons (as shared resources), but rather as living beings participating in the co-constitution of the community that, together, makes and shares the farm?
A “next system” approach from J.K. Gibson Graham would benefit not just from their theories but from examples of alternative economies that they have catalogued and analyzed in practice. They have worked to “test” many of their theories and brought that to bear on their arguments.
Yet, as noted, their project is quite different from most of the others who have a “next system” model, since, again, they focus on gathering the current economic practices together and taking them, in many ways, on their own terms. In their own words, they specifically avoid identifying “good and bad” practices and “selecting certain practices, instating them as the ‘real’ economy and theorizing interactions between these selected practices as economic ‘drivers’ of change.”
Within their “ecumenical approach” they have “gathered all practices to do with material survival onto one conceptual plane and distinguished five types of economic practice— enterprise, labour, property, transaction and finance.” As they see it:
"Rethinking the economy is a revolutionary task. It’s not just a scientific revolution in thinking in the Kuhnian sense, but the enactment of revolution in a performative sense. To rethink the economy as a site of ethical interdependence is to abandon the structural imperatives and market machinations of capitalocentric discourses of economy. All over the world people are taking back the economy as a site of politics and negotiation every day. Some ways in which they are taking back work, business, markets, property and finance for people and the planet are collectively organized" (Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy 2013).